The Great Exception
It’s been awhile. It might feel like I’ve forgotten this blog, but actually, I just had a nice moment every Thursday for the past few weeks where I asked myself, “Do I have something to say today?” And the answer kept coming back, “Nothing fit for public consumption.”
This happens. You can go through phases where nothing you’re thinking is above the line, everything you’re feeling is just shit. It’s interesting that for me this was combined with a strange feeling of disassociation. It was like I was floating outside the world, living only half present with the people around me and with most of my attention and emotional energy drifting in a bit of a fog. You might ask why, but the why doesn’t really matter. Ultimately, what’s useful is to know that it’s okay. It’s okay for me to drift away from all of this for a while. It’s okay for you to also take a pass on whatever it is in yourself you’re working on so diligently.
There is a great concept in commitment theory around the conditions for self-forgiveness: an exception rule. Probably the easiest way to lay out this idea is with a simple example: dieting. Let’s say you make a commitment to a 16:8 fasting regime. You make this commitment S.M.A.R.T.: Specifically, you are going to not eat for 16 hours, then allow yourself to eat for 8 hours. It’s measurable in that you eat when you are supposed to and if you eat outside that timing you’ve quite obviously screwed up. Honestly, the first few days are hard but I’m here to tell you that not eating for 16 hours is totally attainable. It’s relevant because legitimately any measure that focuses your attention on controlled eat tends to make you lose weight. And you can make it all time bound by just committing for three months or say… 100 days.
So you have a SMART goal to help you achieve weight loss. The problem most people has with these types of resolutions or commitments strikes the first time they screw up. They eat a breakfast or grab a muffin mid-morning. They have brunch with out of town friends. Their daughters prepare them Mother’s Day breakfast. Now you’ve done it, right? How can you possibly achieve your goal of a 100 days of 16:8? You’ve completely royally cocked up. Have another beer. And a breakfast bap. And a latte. The whole thing was a stupid idea to begin with, eh?
The exception rule suggests that before you even start your commitment, identify precisely those conditions under which you – from the moment you commit to the project as a whole – forgive yourself for not following your own rules. So in my case, I made an exception rule that if my family wanted to have that rare brunch together on a weekend, it just didn’t count. Full stop. Brunch with my family trumped any fasting programme. In the 100 days of my fast, I did that twice, BTW. Technically then, I didn’t fast 16:8 for 100 days. Or did I? I’d argue that I adhered absolutely to the letter of the commitment that I made myself because I baked into the commitment itself the possibility of temporary failure.
When it comes to leading through change, I have never really consciously laid out my conditions for being selfish with my time, energy, and ideas. Without trying to sound all self-righteous, I just assumed I would have unlimited passion to pour into everything and everyone without any times where I’d just say, “Ah hell no. Go away.” I should have, though. I should have foreseen that there would be a time and a place where there really couldn’t, wouldn’t and shouldn’t be any Toast to share with my side gigs.
Now I wonder how many types of commitments have I made – at work, to friends, with family – where I ultimately failed to change myself – my behaviours or habits – because I didn’t craft for myself an exception rule. Immediately what comes to mind is my mother. Every year she visits, and every year I vow I am going to do my best to be a loving, supportive, and engaging daughter. This year I’m going to do this differently. Instead of perfection being the flat-out enemy of good enough, I want to think about the conditions in which it is okay not to be nice to my mother. Maybe I could give myself permission to make one snappy retort or snarky comment or complain every three or four days, eh? Like, I’m not trying to be a saint here, I’d just like to spend 4 weeks without completely losing my shit. She deserves better, and surely, I can do better. For once.
“Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure. You’re thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all… you can be discouraged by failure or you can learn form it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because remember that’s where you’ll find success. On the far side.” ~ Thomas J. Watson